According to an article in the MIT Technology Review published last week, Google’s autonomous car only functions if “intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped.” It confirms the message from last summer’s NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference where auto industry executives and software producers said that autonomous cars are “far in the future.”
The article in the MIT Technology Review isn’t critical of Google’s work toward autonomous cars. What it cautions is the reaction from the mainstream press and the general public, which appears to be suggesting that self-driving cars are a foregone conclusion. “[T]he public seems to think that all of the technology issues are solved,” says Steven Shladover, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “But that is simply not the case.”
According to the MIT Technology Review, for the Google car to operate, an incredible amount of preparation and followup needs to happen. “Google often leaves the impression that, as a Google executive once wrote, the cars can ‘drive anywhere a car can legally drive.’ However, that’s true only if intricate preparations have been made beforehand, with the car’s exact route, including driveways, extensively mapped. Data from multiple passes by a special sensor vehicle must later be pored over, meter by meter, by both computers and humans. It’s vastly more effort than what’s needed for Google Maps.”
It’s similar to the conclusions from 2014’s NEMPA/MIT Technology Conference held last May at the MIT MediaLab. “Despite current headlines about Google’s self-driving cars, panelists repeatedly underscored that a fully autonomous car, technologically feasible as it may seem, remains far in the future because of the infinite variables in automating the driving experience. Many technological, legal and societal hurdles remain to be overcome.”
MIT’s Dr. Bryan Reimer noted that “[t]he law of probability says it’s 100 percent certain that someone is going to walk in front of one of these autonomous test cars, or one of these cars is going to kill someone.” He notes that the legal ramifications are just now beginning to be understood. “That’s going to set off a chain-of-custody situation. Who is responsible—the engineer, the manufacturer, the driver? It’ll be an ugly legal problem and an interesting area of law where there’s a lot of money to be made.”
Even if some Google executives are overly confident about the car’s abilities, the director of the Google Car team isn’t. Chris Urmson was quite pragmatic about how much testing the cars need to go through in his interview with the MIT Technology Review. He noted that safety concerns have precluded testing even during heavy rains, let alone snow and ice. According to the article, big, open parking lots and multilevel garages are still on the list for testing, too. “I could construct a construction zone that could befuddle the car,” Urmson says.
As we mentioned in a post from a few weeks ago, “the only thing holding OEMs back from releasing autonomous cars to the general public right now is the inscrutably level playing field of legal hurdles that any manufacturer of driverless cars is going to face the minute they decide to put them into production.” According to MIT, that assertion is as solid as Sears.